One year ago, I stopped into the local men's health clinic in between lunch with co-workers and an afternoon workout. It had been a little less than a year since my last STI test, and I figured there was no better way to start a long holiday weekend than with a new stamp on the gay man's passport of responsibility.
After I'd spent 20 minutes twiddling my thumbs and trying to pass for a person who had nothing to worry about, a squatty male nurse with a grumpy disposition finally called me back into the small room where my fate loomed. Instead of a little peace of mind and a good excuse for a cocktail, I found myself on the other side of a looking glass, where my surroundings looked familiar but felt completely and indeterminably different.
Grumpy nurse: "Mr. Curry, do you know what this means?" He points to a piece of paper with a line.
Me: Blank stare. Blink, blink.
Grumpy nurse: "This line mean that you tested positive for HIV."
My brain: Kaboom!
And then everything faded to black.
For the next six months, I attempted a well-traveled path. I opted to keep my status close to my chest, save for telling a few friends and my sister. But like any secret worth telling, it started to seep out from behind the glossy veneer that I thought I had perfected. After a couple of attempts at dating and several awkward first attempts at disclosing my status (not to mention a loud-mouthed roommate), my secret was out (or at least I was convinced it was).
And the paranoia set in: "Does he know? Would he tell?" So on and so forth. It didn't even matter what was actually being said. Within six months I had reached an undetectable viral load and had become completely devoured by the assumptions and stigma happening between my own two ears, all because of a little secret that I was so desperate to keep.
Scarlet letters can be a beast to bear. They can drive you into the depths of a depression that seems impossible to escape. Some people never do. In what seemed like only a moment since I found out, the reality of HIV stigma had become all too real. I sat quietly as horrid language about HIV was recklessly volleyed between friends and acquaintances. I couldn't help but ponder how many others secretly winced in agony every time someone asked, "Are you clean?" or said, "He's got the booty bug," and just took another sip of their drink, each time losing a little bit of self-worth along the way.
I knew that keeping silent would only continue to wreak havoc on my psyche, and I didn't know how much more of myself I was willing to lose. My new scarlet letter wasn't going anywhere. I knew I wasn't dirty, but trying to hide something sure was making me feel that way.
I have spent this past year in two worlds divided.
With my new identity tucked behind my smile, the first world was filled with ear-splitting silence. It doesn't matter what you are hiding inside a closet; the experience is always the same. You are desperate to break free of the secret you keep but terrified to take the first step, for fear of what lies on the other side. But I had made the plunge before, and I knew that the only way I would ever feel "clean" again was to shed light on a topic that is a hell of a lot closer to our lives then we would like to believe. So I turned on some Kelly Clarkson, grabbed a glue gun and some rhinestones and made my scarlet letter so sparkly that I couldn't hide it if I tried.
Outfitted with my new, bejeweled status, I found my second world filled with chaotic, messy and frenzied noise, the kind that's so loud that it stifles any fears you may have had, so much so that you can't remember why you waited so long to turn up the volume in the first place.
It turns out that the topic of HIV is one that many people are desperate to discuss, but few are willing to be the first to speak. There are so many negative stereotypes and blanket assumptions attached to being HIV-positive that most people aren't willing to take the risk of even being associated with the disease. Those who are positive remain silent and continue to wrestle with HIV stigma, while those who are negative remain blissfully naïve yet susceptible to transmission based on the false pretense that only "other people" contract HIV.
Coming out as an HIV-positive man was just the bath that I needed. Immediately, I felt cleansed of the shaming and prejudice that may or may not reside behind the smiles of the friends and strangers around me. Maybe I did lose some distant friends. It was possible that a few men who found me attractive would no longer want to take me to dinner. I wouldn't know, because I washed them down the drain with the rest of the dirt and grime that was making me feel unclean. All that remained were the people who understood the reality of the disease (or were at least willing to learn).
The past year has taught me that silence equals darkness. The more we talk and the louder we are on matters concerning HIV and HIV stigma, the brighter all our lives will become, regardless of status. The only way to rid the gay community of risky behavior, misplaced assumptions and stigmatizing language is to start making some noise.
It's time we purge ourselves of these dirty connotations that have lingered for far too long. And let's be honest: We all have been a little dirty from time to time, but there is nothing a little soap, water and honesty can't sanitize.
I may be HIV-positive, but my conscience is clean.